Outside spending soars in the West’s key Senate races

Colorado and Alaska have the most expensive midterm battles in the region.


Less than three weeks remain before the midterm elections, and with control of the Senate at stake, both Democrats and Republicans are pouring money into the races at unprecedented rates. The GOP candidates need just six seats in blue states to flip the Senate. So far, outside spending (i.e. money spent by groups or individuals independently of party committees) in this election cycle has soared to almost $500 million, which means this year’s congressional elections officially passed the record for the most expensive in U.S. history, even after adjusting for inflation.

Elections have become so expensive, in part, because of a landmark 2010 decision known as Citizens United, in which the Supreme Court argued that campaign contributions were a form of political speech. The court struck down limits on the amount of money wealthy individuals, corporations, unions and other special interest groups could spend on elections. Thanks to that decision, campaign spending jumped by nearly $2 billion between 2008 and 2012. That money, pumped into ad campaigns designed to influence voters’ opinions about particular candidates, has come largely through two kinds of organizations — super PACs (political action committee) and tax-exempt nonprofits — which can spend whatever they want, so long as they don’t coordinate directly with candidates.

But while super PACs must disclose their donors, the nonprofits do not, though many of them spend just as lavishly as their more transparent counterparts. The latter are often referred to as “dark money” groups — think Americans for Prosperity that’s fed by Koch money — and overwhelmingly lean Republican.

Leading up to this year’s midterms, the majority of outside spending has been funneled into the most contentious Senate races, which include Colorado and Alaska. And across the West, even the less high-profile battles are part of the spending frenzy.

The biggest spenders

This year’s top-spending outside group is the left-leaning Senate Majority PAC, which has spent over $35 million funding Democratic candidates in tight races. The group’s highest donors are San-Francisco-based billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and Chicagoan Fred Eychaner, a powerful philanthropist and chairman of Newsweb Corporation. Coming in at number two and three, however, are the right-leaning American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which have spent over $34 million and $28 million respectively in support of Republican candidates.

The heavy-hitting Crossroads consortium, co-founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, attracts donations from industries like investment firms, and oil and gas companies. Other major donors include an executive search firm called Chartwell Partners and the American Jewish Coalition, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Although American Crossroads is a super PAC and must disclose its donors, the GPS branch does not, and nor does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile on the left, Steyer has pumped almost $36 million into his newly formed super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, which has spent over $5 million against Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who's vying for Mark Udall’s senate seat.

The most expensive races

The showdown in Colorado between Democrat Udall and Republican  Gardner has become the most expensive senate race in the West (and ranks number two nationwide). The race is attracting the most outside spending in the region and is closing in on $36 million. Alaska's U.S. senate race is the second most expensive in the West, and fifth nationwide, attracting over $27 million in political spending. Put Alaska First, the super PAC in support of the state’s Democratic incumbent, Mark Begich, tops the list for spending from any single-candidate super PAC in the U.S. Oregon's U.S. Senate race is in third place, with just over $2 million in outside spending so far — thanks in large part to the Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch-backed group that bankrolled a $1.6 million ad blitz against the state’s Democratic senator Jeff Merkley.

The Arizona U.S. House race between Rep. Gabrielle Gifford’s successor, Ron Barber, and his Republican challenger, Martha McSally, deserves an honorable mention for expensive House races this midterm season. More outside money ($2.9 million) has been spent in the battle for Giffords’ former seat than in Senate races in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and New Mexico, which has only seen $4,727. Meanwhile, Giffords has launched a blistering — and well-funded — attack of her own against anti-gun control candidates nationwide through her Americans for Responsible Solutions super PAC.

Stay tuned for more midterms coverage in our upcoming print edition.

Sarah Tory is an editorial intern at High Country News.  . Homepage illustration of Mark Udall and Cory Gardner courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey.

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